English pirate William Dampier wrote a widely influential memoir after being recruited in Hampton for a 5-year-long voyage of piracy, adventure and exploration. (May 30, 2013)
Blackbeard may get all the attention. Black Bart was even more feared. But for my money, the most important pirate to cast a shadow across Hampton Roads was an almost completely unknown Englishman named William Dampier.
Exactly what he was doing in the bustling port town of Hampton in the early 1680s isn't well understood. No one knows how or why he got here. But with Hampton's prime location off the northernmost reaches of the Gulf Stream and its proximity to the transatlantic trade winds, there's been plenty of speculation that, like many other enterprising brigands from as far away as the West Indies, he sailed to Virginia to take advantage of the many opportunities to sell off pirate loot.
Whatever his reasons, Dampier was still here in 1682 when former shipmate John Cooke captained a ship full of amateur English pirates all the way from West Africa in search of a little seasoning from this buccaneering veteran. Careening his vessel on the Eastern Shore, Cooke came to Hampton and recruited both Dampier and another former shipmate, Edward Davis, who would later hang for consorting with the notorious Capt. William Kidd.
Sailing back to West Africa, the crew won a new ship in a card game, then set off back across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn for an astonishingly 5-year-long campaign in which they captured ships, ransomed captives and sacked towns all the way from Chile to Panama. They also explored the Galapagos Islands along the way, with the curious Dampier making drawings and taking extensive notes.
Dampier wasn't among the group of five -- including Davis -- who later returned to Hampton Roads, were captured with their loot on the James River and then bought their freedom by giving 300 pounds to the Rev. James Blair for the establishment of the College of William and Mary. Instead he left the ship and sailed west across the Pacific, where he was marooned on a deserted island for many months before being rescued.
But where his shipmates' adventures have been mostly forgotten, Dampier's live on through the influence of the memoirs he wrote and published after his return to England.
Jonathan Swift used his amazing accounts of exploration and travel as the inspiration for his famous novel "Gulliver's Travels." They also sparked Daniel Defoe to write the equally famous "Robinson Crusoe." And even 150 years later the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin referred to Dampier's writings during his own milestone voyage to the Galapagos and Easter Island, the experience of which led to Darwin's landmark theory of evolution.
That's a pretty long shadow for a pirate.
Want to hear more about Hampton Roads and pirates?
Come see me this Saturday at the Blackbeard Pirate Festival, where I'll be signing copies of "Out of the Sea Came Pirates: The Golden Age of Piracy in Hampton Roads." 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Hampton History Museum booth near the Virginia Air & Space Center.
I'll also be giving out free copies of James Fort and USS Monitor posters to anyone who likes our Hampton Roads History page on Facebook.
-- Mark St. John Erickson